Thai Enquirer’s ‘Women of Thailand’s Past’ series chronicles the lives of Thai women in the 18th, 19th and early 20thcentury. We begin with Thak Chaloemtiarana’s prompt of Thai women as “multi-faceted beings” as an entry point for tracing different models of femininity developed in Siamese / Thai history. In doing so, we highlight the ways gender has intersected with political ideology and been used to legitimate, or resist, authoritarian rule.
In this article, we explore the life of Princess Rudivoravan – or Mrs. Rudi Voravan – and womanhood during the Sixth Reign (r. 1910 – 1925). This article is based on her 1957 autobriography “The Treasured One,” as told to Ruth Adams Knight.
Southeast Asian scholar Thak Chaloemtiarana once observed that the Thai woman is a particularly “multi-faceted being.” She is at once a businesswoman and head of the Thai household, a sexually demure wife and mother, a beauty queen, a sex worker, a diplomat and a CEO. Modern Thai womanhood is an amalgamation of different ideals suggested in literature, religion and lived experience – from the intelligent Narng Nopphamas, to the warrior queen Sri Suriyothai, to the submissive and highly sexualized ‘Angels of Pattaya.’
The status of Thai women only becomes more difficult to understand the closer one looks. Paradoxically, lower-class women seem to enjoy greater equality in marriage or work than their elite counterparts. As King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, r. 1910 – 1925) acknowledged in his essay titled ‘The Marker of Civilization is the Status of Women’: “our Siamese country people are much closer to ‘civilization’ than people in Bangkok or large towns.”
Princess Rudivoravan, granddaughter of King Mongkut, felt this keenly. She was born in 1911, at the very beginning of King Vajiravudh’s reign. Observing life in the Inner Court, she wrote in her autobiography The Treasured One: “women in Siam had always been free, except those of the upper classes.” Rudivoravan’s reflections were influenced by the taste of ‘freedom’ she had experienced in her upbringing at a British boarding school. She was brought home to Siam in her early teenage years, where she struggled to reconcile what her “outspoken Western ways” with the model of female modesty and domesticity that was being phased into the Inner Court.
The Siam Rudivoravan returned to was undergoing a gender revolution. As Rudivoravan notes, when she left Bangkok both men and women were still wearing the pant-like pa nung, but upon her return women were obligated to wear the skirt-like phaasin, a blouse and an elaborate scarf-like ‘stole.’ Royal women also had to wear socks, jewelry and, often, hats. This was due to reforms in royal dress initiated under King Chulalongkorn and accelerated under King Vajiravudh. The main aim of such reforms was to counter European criticisms of Siamese ‘backwardness’ or ‘barbarism’ on account of the perceived androgyny of Siamese people. This modernization program was inscribed most visibly onto the (now clothed) bodies of Siamese women.
However, reforms under Vajiravudh were not restricted to aesthetics. Like Rudivoravan, Vajiravudh had studied in the United Kingdom and brought back distinct ideas of womanhood. His were modeled firmly on Victorian values, which extolled ‘ladylike’ behavior and female domesticity. In his 1914 speech to young princesses, Vajiravudh made clear that their main role in the modernizing nation was at home. By being good wives and mothers, they would enable their husbands to achieve their full capacities and raise sufficiently nationalist children.
This required some adjustment for royal women, who were accustomed to the power offered by their positions in the Inner City and proximity to the royal family. When Chulalongkorn embarked on his 1897 trip to Europe, the nation was left in the hands of the Queen, who presided over the daily ministerial meetings of the Front Court. As the main character Ploi observes in Kukrit Pramoj’s Si Phaendin (Four Reigns), the authority of the Queen meant that the all-female Inner Court came to take on even greater political significance than the Front Court of male advisors. For a brief period, women, quite literally, ruled.
In the eyes of Rudivoravan, life for court women was increasingly stifling. She watched her sister Lakshamilavan become Queen and wife of Vajiravudh, only to lose her freedom due to her elevated rank. Queen Lakshami was unable to socialize with lower-ranked people and had only Rudivoravan to keep her company. In turn, Rudivoravan grew increasingly unhappy in her marriage to Prince Jitjanok. The Prince gave her latitude to start her own businesses, including a dress shop and a music and dance studio, but the magical love she had dreamed of in the West simply wasn’t present in her increasingly domesticated life.
Elite women faced severe double standards, especially when it came to married life. Her attempt to divorce Prince Jitjanok came only a few years after Prince Chula’s high-profile divorce from his Russian wife. While his royal ties remained (largely) intact, she was cast out by her family and renounced her royal title.
The timing was perhaps fortuitous: only a few years later, the 1932 Khana Ratsadon Revolution took place, upsetting the royal hierarchy that had been built around absolute monarchy rule. Bureaucrats and military men became central political actors, inaugurating an alternate hierarchy of political prestige – but once again based on hegemonic masculinity. Rudivoravan attached herself to one of these new men of prestige, marrying a commoner who worked his way up to become the foreign advisor of the Ministry of Finance.
Outside of court life, Rudivoravan found her stride. She accompanied her husband overseas for a diplomatic posting in the United States in 1947, where her theatre background made her a successful diplomatic wife. In Washington D.C., she wrote scripts and dramatized performances for the Red Cross radio and was even invited to interview on the WMAL TV channel. Rudivoravan delightfully notes: “it was so praised that they gave me the first idea of being an ambassador for both countries over the airwaves.”
Her return from diplomatic life in 1950 coincided with Thailand’s return to military dictatorship. Under the three tyrants (Phibun, Sarit and Phao), women were offered opportunities outside of domestic life – but only insofar as it served the military state. Rudivoravan was one of those women, funneled into work as an air traffic controller due to her English-speaking abilities. As the Cold War effort ramped up, she began working as a newscaster for the Government Publicity Department and the CIA-allied Voice of Thailand.
But life under the military soon wore her down. In 1951, she decided to move to the U.S. as a broadcaster for Voice of America. She brought only her children “so they would grow up in an operating democracy,” and left her husband behind. “As a princess who regards herself first as a free human being,” she declared, “it is right that I should be part of such a service.” She was charged with broadcasting a half-hour program for Thai women, and tens of thousands of her fellow countrywomen tuned in. By 1956, she was awarded a commendable service award by the U.S. Foreign Service Journal.
Throughout, Rudivoravan maintains that it is democracy that she is seeking – although at certain points, ‘democracy’ seems to be an idiom for greater freedom for women, of the sort she experienced briefly in the United Kingdom and had failed to materialize under Vajiravudh’s and later Phibun’s nation-building programs.
Vajiravudh wanted to cultivate wives and mothers. Phibun wanted women to be ‘Flowers of the Nation’ (Dokmai Kong Chart), beauty queens and well-dressed female civil servants whose stateliness could mask the three tyrants’ avarice. In the success she achieved in the U.S., Rudivoravan reveals the opportunities missed by similarly skilled women who could not afford to escape a political world built around preserving male power.
Curiously, her autobiography remains poorly received. As The New York Times writes: “If she had slowly spelled out this biography herself, without the help of an American collaborator, she might have found more answers about the spoiled little princess who was the twenty-second child [of Prince Narathip].” Renown Thai studies academic Walter Vella similarly dismisses the book, declaring simply that its key contribution is in “illustrating the importance of the king.”
This reaction is part of the phenomenon Christine Gray observes as “the hostility towards bourgeois women.” Rudivoravan, due to her former royal status, was an allegedly bourgeois woman – rendering her ‘struggle’ superficial in the eyes of the intelligentsia. Yet, she lacked the kind of economic base that royal men were given. When she was ousted from the royal establishment, she was penniless, and had to make her own living in the Fine Arts Department, and later at VOA. These “bourgeois” Thai women remained subordinated under patriarchal capitalist structures, their lives precarious and their class status dependent on the men they were willing to marry.
Ultimately, Rudivoravan’s life highlights an under-appreciated reality of gender under capital: that women’s class status is much more unstable than that of men. Large ‘upscales’ in class make women super-dependent on the men they marry, while downgrades strip them of whatever class status they formerly had. This is especially true of Thai society, where class is built around a patriarchal structure constituted by lineage, rank or bestowed titles more than it is by money.
In that sense, women CEOs and executives don’t fundamentally threaten the power structure in the way they might in the United States, because their ‘class’ remains determined by factors that remain unattainable to most women anyway. Rudivoravan’s escape to America was read by the New York Times as spoiled and naïve, but in the gender-capital complex of Thai society, it was perhaps the only way a political woman could live as a “free human being.”